During the first half of the 20th century most historians would have agreed with the maxim attributed to Sir John Seeley that: ‘History is past politics; and politics present history’. While he was a keen partisan of late Victorian British imperialism, Seeley’s assertion echoed a view, then common among many continental European intellectuals, which emphasised the supreme importance of the nation-state, with which ‘politics’ was exclusively identified. As the influential German philosopher Georg Hegel argued earlier in the 19th century, the state constituted a moral and spiritual force existing beyond the material interests of its subjects and was consequently the principal agent of historical change. This meant that political history was, to all intents and purposes, history.
Seeley was, moreover, not alone in believing that the study of history in British universities was a vital means through which future governors of the empire – like those mostly male, upper-class Cambridge students who attended his lectures – could learn valuable lessons. The ultimate purpose of history was, as a result, conceived as the development of the elite’s ability to rule over Queen Victoria’s subjects, be they East End dockers or Indian peasants, and to defend the empire’s integrity from external threats. Consequently, political history was kept within narrow, institutional terms, comprising the history of the state, of relations between states, and of great statesmen. Political history was, in effect, the history of the state.
Most of these Victorian assumptions unravelled during the latter half of the 20th century. Even so, when many today speak of ‘political history’ they appear to imagine that it still just comprises the study of Westminster and Whitehall and of those men – and occasionally women – who have steered the ship of state. This ‘high’ or elite or some may even say ‘traditional’ political history continues to be written. It has, however, been complemented by other ways of thinking about the subject. This ‘new’ political history reflects changes within the discipline of history resulting from the transformed context in which it is now studied; and echoes the very different ways in which the state and politics are perceived at the start of the 21st century.
The most important challenge to ‘traditional’ political history came with the ‘democratisation’ of society, that is, the extension of the franchise to all adults and the creation of the welfare state. This promoted the belief that government should reflect the interests of the people, rather than those of the ruling elite or the state itself. The expansion of higher education also saw previously dispossessed groups enter universities as students and teachers who then criticised established views of the state. Socialists and feminists, enjoying a uniquely loud voice during the 1960s and 1970s, outlined alternative ways of practising politics, hoping to develop more popular forms of participation in decision-making.
This radical wave had largely dissipated by the 1980s, but it left an imprint on academic conceptions of the purpose of ‘politics’. The succeeding neo-liberalism of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan also advanced criticisms of the state and curtailed much of its influence in the name of ‘freedom’. Thus, by the end of the 20th century, there was much talk of the decline of the nation-state: the institutions that had once defined politics appeared to have been bypassed and undermined by ‘globalisation’ on the one hand and consumerist, empowered individuals on the other.
As a result, political history suffered a significant decline in status within the wider discipline. It was pushed from the centre of most narratives thanks to the proliferation of newer areas of interest, most notably social history and its offshoots, which stressed the importance of popular experience and highlighted oppressed groups’ struggles against the ruling elite. If Seeley had assumed agency resided only in the state, others now believed in the potential of the ‘people’ to be active in the making of their own histories.
Consequently, since the 1970s historians have increasingly eschewed subjects associated with representative politics in favour of culture, consumption, gender, race and sexuality. This shift, from concerns with the body politic to an interest in the politics of the body, from the public to the private, highlights once neglected issues of importance. It nonetheless threatens to distort a complete understanding of the dynamics of historical change by exaggerating the importance of popular potential and diminishing the significance of the state and other institutions of representative politics, most obviously political parties
What is referred to as the ‘new’ political history is an attempt to engage with some of these developments without losing sight of the power of politics to shape society. This has, in fact, been a matter of abiding interest to a minority of historians long unhappy with the established forms of political history. Thus, when in 1944 G. M. Trevelyan defined social history as ‘the history of a people with the politics left out’, this was not because he endorsed such a negative classification. In fact Trevelyan thought it was a necessary expedient to compensate for political histories which, he claimed, had been ‘written without reference to their social environment.
Few political historians consciously rejected the importance of this ‘social environment’. Even Geoffrey Elton, that doyen of ‘traditional’ political history, declared in 1970: ‘All the forms of history that have existed belong to the world which the political historian inhabits all things are relevant to politics’.They were nonetheless unwilling to invest much thought into the nature of the relationship between their conception of politics and wider society and culture. During the interwar period, some innovative historians of Parliament did nonetheless look beyond Westminster and tried to account for the ‘social foundations’ of politics, most notably Lewis Namier.
Matters changed in the post-war period. Even before 1939, diplomatic and international history had annexed much of political history’s former territory, meaning that it was conceived increasingly in domestic and especially electoral terms. For the extension of the franchise had turned political parties into highly significant subjects. Moreover, given that the parties were the point at which society and formal politics came into collision, some kind of systematic thinking about the relationship between the two now became necessary.
The ‘Nuffield School’ of contemporary political sociology influenced many of those interested in the history of electoral politics in the 1960s and 1970s. This advanced the view that social and economic forces beyond politicians’ control had established the terms of party competition. Leaders might exploit electoral opportunities presented by these deeper influences but were incapable of doing more than associate their parties with – usually class – identities or interests with which voters already adhered. Thus, for example, the rise of the Labour party and fall of the Liberals could be seen as the by-product of the expansion of the manual working class. The role of representative politics was merely to manage such phenomena.
Not all political historians embraced this fatalistic view. Most notably Maurice Cowling in a series of remarkable monographs published in the late 1960s and early 1970s took on labour and social historians who were starting to emphasise the role of the working class in Westminster politics. In particular he debated the causes of the 1867 Reform Act, rebutting the proposition that it was the product of working-class pressure, arguing instead that Disraeli extended the franchise to skilled male workers because it suited his Parliamentary purposes.
Cowling did not claim that Disraeli operated in a social vacuum but argued that political decisions could only be advanced through the political structure, that is ‘through existing concentrations of power’, during which process they would inevitably be ‘transformed in order to be made tolerable to ruling opinion’. Elsewhere he maintained that it was the ‘language they used, the images they formed, the myths they left’, which allowed political leaders to shape what others thought. Politicians, even with the arrival of a fully democratic franchise, tried ‘not merely to say what electors wanted to hear but to make electors want them to say what they wanted to say in the first place’ – and they usually succeeded.
Cowling was mistrusted by ‘traditional’ political historians for his methods and disliked by social and labour historians for his conclusions. As a result, the implications of his work have taken some time to be properly appreciated, in particular his gesturing to the need to integrate the relative autonomy of politics to shape popular thinking with the need to take account of the means by which the social and cultural position of politics structured its possibilities. It was only during the 1990s that (consciously or not) political historians from many differing perspectives – but all of them unhappy with the deterministic social approach and critical of the narrowness of traditional political history – began to emphasise the constructive role of politics within a nuanced understanding of its cultural context.
If some believed in the political potential of the ‘people’ they also played due regard to the means by which politics – in the shape of the state or parties – could manipulate or even create identities in a way amenable to their purposes. Much recent work on modern British political history now operates within this new paradigm, emphasising the significance of the press, posters, public meetings, printed propaganda and even popular fictions, thereby focussing on the interactive relationship between politics and the people. Some have even taken the hallmark topics of traditional political history – such as leadership – and breathed into them new life, most notably Philip Williamson’s study of Stanley Baldwin which focuses on the constructed nature of Baldwin’s public personality, and the resonances it generated within popular culture which he was then able to exploit.
Political history may now be but one of a number of ways of understanding the past but it is a more diverse and dynamic subject than ever it was. It more accurately reflects the true nature of politics which, as the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan noted of one 1950s Cabinet, could embrace topics ‘ranging from Homosexuality to the price of milk.
– MEREZJA F